The Tristan Project at Avery Fisher Hall on May 2 was a triumph of creative vision and the top professionalism of deeply talented artists. Elements one always seeks in live performance of any kind that are too often disappointing.
A concert setting of opera has elegance and purity, with the orchestra onstage and the singers in evening dress instead of costumes. The music—both the instrumental and the singing—has everyone's fullest attention. In this instance, that attention was for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
A new element transformed the usual experience: A 36-foot wide screen suspended above the tableau—like a 2001: Space Odyssey monolith—that projected the work of video artist Bill Viola, commissioned for the project.
From the first, familiar, unstable chord, through the hours of yearning for it to please, please resolve, Bill Viola’s video is intriguing, stunning, wondersome. The interplay of water, fire, man, and woman illuminates and connects to the ideas of the opera without literally illustrating them. In the program notes, Viola said that he listened to multiple versions of the music, but then he put it aside and created his video from the libretto. “I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage, in the same way that a more subtle poetic narrative mediates the hidden dimensions of our inner lives.”
All I can say to that is, thank you Mr. Viola.
The new element had mixed reactions. The gentleman to my right, a devoted Wagner fan for fifty years, loved it as part of the experience. A woman in the row in front of us felt the video added nothing and was too much like having to watch television during the performance.
I had a little trouble at the beginning, getting into the rhythm of actively watching and actively listening. There were times when the singing was so deeply compelling—the Tristan and Isolde duet in the second act—when I literally forgot the video was there. Christine Brewer’s’ control and subtleties were that all-consuming. But at all other times the visual/aural experience was seamless, and at transition points—like when the figures fall into water that you thought were mirrors, or the fire becomes water—I realized I hadn’t breathed for minutes.
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were magnetic. They were so good, the production so imaginative, that Allan Kozinn takes a swipe at the collective home team in his review in the NY Times: “The New York Philharmonic’s nearest efforts have been frothy musical-theater evenings, like “My Fair Lady” and “Candide.” That getting a production like this into Avery Fisher Hall requires importing it from across the continent is truly outrageous. But that’s the state of things, and it’s emblematic of the difference between these two orchestras.” Ouch.
And to top it all off, the artistic director Peter Sellars’s synopsis notes were bracing and insistently unsentimental:
“Two damaged, angry, desperate, and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat. Neither expects to survive the journey.”
Bravo! That’s telling it like it is.
[Just as an aside—Tristan and Isolde’s love is touted as the paradigm for a love so intense that it has to transcend to death. But as a plot point, they both drank a potion, which they thought was poison, only to learn it was a love potion. So this intensity is chemically, magically induced. Doesn’t that bother anyone? For me, it means that their depth of love is not something that mortals will experience in a natural life. Quel dommage.]
Like I felt at Minghella’s Madame Butterfly, the Tristan Project shows the future of opera. We can’t pretend that the visual semiotics of life haven’t been heightened since the rise of the art form centuries ago. If the music of opera stays wrapped in an old shell, if 21st century audiences can’t relate to the dusty trappings, the art will die. And as Peter Sellars and Bill Viola and Esa-Pekka Salonen have shown us, there is too much of value there to let that happen.
One practical note: the ticket prices for this were obscene. When I was at the Avery Fisher Hall box office, several people complained to the staff about how expensive it was. Something has to be done about that. This art can’t live across some sort of performing divide. The true audiences for opera come from every walk and manner of life--if you stand on line for tickets you will see that. We have to do better as a society to not allow money to rule whose life becomes enriched by this art form, and whose doesn’t.